This morning I was interviewed on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland about the letter that David Cameron will on Tuesday send to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council. My first thought is that we should not expect to see much that is new in the letter. The broad contours of the UK government’s demands in their renegotiation with Brussels have been clear for some time, effectively amounting to:
- A strengthened role for national parliaments in the EU’s decision-making process;
- Amending the commitment to ‘Ever Closer Union’, enshrined in the pre-amble of the EU’s treaties;
- Safeguards for non-Eurozone members in the EU’s decision-making process;
- Restrictions on how EU migrants and EU migrant workers can access the UK’s social security system; and
- A greater focus on competitiveness within the EU.
The letter might specify a little more clearly how the UK government sees some of those goals being attained. For example, it might clarify whether the UK government wants to secure an opt-out for itself on ‘Ever Closer Union’ (a toothless opt-out in reality, but let’s leave that to one side) or whether it wants to amend the EU’s treaties so that a flexible, multi-speed Europe is enshrined in the EU’s treaties, that would apply to all Member States. I have already written in more depth about the specifics of the negotiation here and here.
What will happen after the letter?
A few things to note:
- Cameron will deliver a speech on Tuesday, in parallel to the letter being sent (and presumably made public either formally or via a leak) in which he will deliver, we are told, his firmest message yet. Channelling Hugh Grant, he will say that the UK is big enough, strong enough, and great enough to survive outside of the EU and that his fellow EU leaders need to take his demands seriously.
- On Thursday there will be an informal meeting of the European Council – bringing together the EU’s 28 heads of state or government, Tusk, and the European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker – in Brussels. This will be the first opportunity for them to discuss the terms of Cameron’s renegotiation in light of the letter.
- In all likelihood that will trigger an intense set of discussions between officials of each of the countries, trying to pin down those who are supportive of the various UK positions, those who are opposed, and what possible compromises might be possible.
- The European Council will then meet formally over 17-18 December at which point, assuming sufficient progress, some sort of broad framework for the renegotiations might be agreed.
- After Christmas the renegotiations will descend, in all probability, into the Brussels machinery around the Council of the European Union (especially the powerful Committee of Permanent Representatives, bringing together the 28 national ambassadors to the EU) for many months, where the hard negotiation will take place.
- Downing Street earlier this year denied rumours that Cameron would like to have his referendum in June 2016 (a rare Daily Mail link) – meaning that final agreement on ‘the deal’ would need to be reached in time for the European Council meeting of 17-18 March 2016. That seems, to me, an impossible timeline.
Will things change this week?
In a word, No. We might get a slightly clearer picture of the UK government’s demands (although it would be better for them to remain as ambiguous as possible for the time being). Cameron might use slightly tougher rhetoric to score some points back home, allowing his Foreign Secretary to continue to play the ‘really bad cop’ role within the Cabinet. But the Prime Minister continues to broadly favour EU membership for the UK and this letter should not be interpreted as altering that perception in any way. Cameron continues to walk a tightrope between his own Conservative backbench MPs (and some of his frontbench colleagues in government), whose demands would undercut the essential fabric of the EU, and the pragmatism of his fellow EU leaders who are, for the most part, prepared to do what they can to help Cameron keep the UK inside the EU but not at the expense of undermining the overall EU project.
Is the strategy right?
To be frank it is, at times, hard to see much strategy here. Since becoming leader of the Conservative party in 2005 it has often seemed as though Cameron was reacting to events vis-a-vis the EU. The best thing that can be said for the negotiation strategy, to date, is that it has aired on the side of ambiguity. It is hard to tell, for example, precisely how the UK government wants to see the role of national parliaments strengthened, or how precisely the UK wants to strengthen the competitiveness agenda.
Strangely, it is in the thorniest area of the renegotiation, namely that of access to UK social security for EU migrants and migrant workers, that the UK government have been most specific. Initially suggesting that they would like quotas on the number of EU migrants who could move to the UK – something so inimical to the free movement principle that it was always a non-starter – the UK government position was ‘softened’ to a four year period during which EU migrant workers in the UK could not access in-work benefits on the same terms as UK nationals.
So, essentially, it was ‘softened’ to a demand to be able to discriminate for up to four years against people working and paying taxes in the UK. It is hard to imagine that in Whitehall anybody seriously thinks that even this ‘softened’ demand is likely to be attainable. But UK government ministers have repeated it so often that it is hard to see how they will not have to either (a) stage a climdown, or (b) admit defeat. Hardly a sensible strategy.
More broadly the whole question of the UK’s membership of the EU, and the referendum to come, is one of UK foreign policy and is, at root, about the nation’s role in the world (or at least, it should be about that). In that regard it is hard to see Cameron’s approach as a success. Indeed, a report issued this morning – authored by a number of retired senior diplomats, intelligence officials, and foreign policy experts – hits the nail on the head when it says,
Constantly fretting about the formal status of our association with the EU restricts what the UK can in practice achieve through that relationship. In, out, or semi-detached, the fact is that working in and with Europe is a necessary component of nearly every area of policy.
So, not only is the Prime Minister’s strategy vis-a-vis the EU highly questionable, but within the broader context of UK foreign policy, going down the road that he has on the EU represents at best an unnecessary distraction and, at worst, a strategic mistake by Mr Cameron.
Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government and co-editor of The European Union: How Does it Work? 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2015).